I spent the first three years of my career working in a community school in the neighborhood I grew up in. The elementary school I worked in sat five stories high a few blocks opposite the elementary school I graduated from.
Both schools face the rackety seven train on either side of the Roosevelt – 103rd stop where throngs of people climb out of the passenger cars in a hurry only to end up waiting in line for the limited number of exits.
Most of the hoards of people that push past each other at this stop on a daily basis would be categorized as Hispanic. This is representative of approximately 90% of students at both elementary schools nearby. Their native tongues can be heard in the trill and flap r’s ruminating in the hallways between students.
I’m a speech-language pathologist by trade but because I lived so close to the school, I was often asked to substitute for the after-school program when a teacher fell ill or called out. Eventually, I substituted so much that they offered me a term position facilitating a literacy program after school and I accepted.
There are some students you can never forget. Indelible students remain in the folds of your memory, etched gravings on soft tissue.
During that after-school program, there was a young girl with flowing black locks that fell down to the middle of her back. Her name was Michaela. Pronounced MEE-KAH-EL-LA. I know this because I make it a point to ask all of my students how their names are pronounced and make conscientious efforts to say their names the right way.
The term came and went and Michaela made steady progress in her reading fluency. The following term I opted out of taking on an after-school class and went back to subbing because of my schedule.
One crisp Fall afternoon, I was asked to substitute and walked into the pleasant surprise of seeing Michaela sitting at a table along with a variety of both familiar and unfamiliar faces. I called the class to the royal blue carpet and started to roll call attendance.
I’ll never forget the way the children around her shuffled and snickered as I said her name, “Michaela.” Pronounced MEE-KAH-EL-LA.
“Here,” she responded as she half raised her hand in the air as if she was unsure of her own name.
“Why is everyone laughing?” I demanded to know, uncomfortable with the thought that they were making fun of her.
“They call me Michaela” she responded under her breath. She pronounced it MUH-KAY-LA. I nodded in response, not wanting to put her further on the spot.
After attendance was called and the students were assigned to work at their desks on either side of the room, I called Michaela over to where I was sitting in the teacher’s chair at the foot of the royal blue carpet facing the entrance.
“What would you like me to call you? Do you want me to say your name the other way?” I asked in a soft whisper.
“No, I like the way you say it. It’s how my mom says my name,” she responded with her eyes glistening. I, again, nodded in response and sent her back to her seat.
I sat back and reflected on how a classroom of native Spanish speaking students came to pronounce Michaela’s name in such an Americanized way.
Names have an incredible significance in terms of identity. The language of a name can reveal nationality, native tongue, culture and history. Qualitative research shows that the pronunciation of names has a lasting psychological effect on the lives of students, including correlations with their social-emotional well-being.
What student do you know that can learn well when they are not feeling safe, secure and at peace?
It takes conscious effort to learn how to pronounce all different kinds of names. Anyone who has worked in a diverse educational setting has encountered names that are outside of their cultural norm and has likely fallen into the trap of mispronouncing names.
Former teacher and education blogger, Jennifer Gonzalez, identifies three types of offenders when it comes to individuals who mispronounce names.
The first type of offender is a fumble-bumbler or someone who attempts a name a few times, all slow and wobbly tripping over each syllable. This person eventually gives up trying and settles on an approximation for the pronunciation. Gonzalez shares that the fumble-bumbler is not as harmful as the next category of offender because they put the mispronunciation on themselves and don’t suggest that anyone else is at fault.
The second type of offender is an arrogant mangler or someone who assumes their pronunciation is correct and does not bother to check in. Some of these individuals will don a nickname onto students without thinking to ask if this is acceptable. The worst kinds of offenders will start with the first syllable and wave the rest of the name away like a pesky mosquito, adding something like “whatever your name is.” Gonzalez calls the latter assholes. I am inclined to agree with her.
The third type of offender is called a calibrator or someone who recognizes that a name requires a little more effort and tries to replicate it until they have the correct pronunciation.
Gonzalez goes on to explain why the mispronunciation of names is so harmful:
Name mispronunciation – especially the kind committed by the arrogant manglers—actually falls into a larger category of behaviors called microaggressions, defined by researchers at Columbia University’s Teachers College as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color” (Sue et al., 2007).
In other words, mutilating someone’s name is a tiny act of bigotry. Whether you intend to or not, what you’re communicating is this: Your name is different. Foreign. Weird. It’s not worth my time to get it right. Although most of your students may not know the word microaggression, they’re probably familiar with that vague feeling of marginalization, the message that everyone else is “normal,” and they are not.
If you are a calibrator, give yourself a pat on the back and pay it forward by encouraging your colleagues to also be calibrators. If you fall into any other category and have been running with the excuse of “I’m just not good with names” – this is your chance to turn it around.
Gonzalez addresses anyone who may be inclined to get defensive when presented with this new information:
“Discovering that something you do might be construed as bigotry doesn’t mean anyone is calling you a bigot. It’s just an opportunity to grow. An opportunity to understand that doing something a little differently shows others that you respect them. At some point in your life, someone probably taught you to hold the door open for the person coming in behind you. Before then, maybe you didn’t know. Opportunity to grow. It’s that simple.”
This is my call to all educators to either start or continue the work as calibrators, as individuals who see the value in encouraging a strong sense of identity in students by acknowledging that their names are important. There is no guarantee that actively working on the correct pronunciation of student names will lead to a highly effective rating, but it will likely help with the social-emotional well-being of your students from other cultures. And that’s what should really matter.
Try facilitating an art activity where students phonetically spell out their names and tape them on their desks or the back of their chairs. Have them create rhymes for the correct pronunciation of their name. Get creative. Be collaborative. Ask your students for patience as you try to learn the correct pronunciation, but whatever you do, don’t give up trying. Don’t give up on making sure your students feel important and recognized.
In the meantime, enjoy this bit created by my comedian friend Lorena Russi, a woman attempting to adult after years of having her name mispronounced. I’d spell it out phonetically but flap r’s are hard to explain and I think you’ll get the point from the video.
Articles Used For Research Include:
***This is essay 29 in the #52essays2017 challenge created by Vanessa Mártir.